New York City’s newest Councilmember will also be the first one to face a re-election campaign. Farah Louis, who won an eight-way special election on May 14 to fill the seat vacated by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, has yet to be sworn in to represent Brooklyn’s 45th district.
She will likely take her oath of office just a couple weeks before a June 25 primary in the race to fill the seat for the remainder of Williams’ term.
Whenever Louis does formally take office, New York will for the first time have two Haitian-Americans in the City Council—a major milestone for the largest and one of the oldest ex patriate Haitian communities in the world.
A pack of pioneers
It took New York’s Haitian community almost 60 years from when Bertram L. Baker, an immigrant from the island of Nevis in the West Indies, became the first black person elected to a political office by voters in Brooklyn to when the Haitian physician Mathieu Eugene was elected to the City Council in 2007, representing the 40th District of New York City.
Eugene, the longest-serving member of the current Council, is now in his final term in office representing portions of Crown Heights, Flatbush, East Flatbush Kensington, Midwood, Prospect Park, and Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
Since his election 12 years ago, a new generation of young leaders has come out of the metro-area Haitian community, and many have been elected to numerous public service positions.
Michaelle C. Solages, who represents Nassau County’s 22nd District in the New York State Assembly, became the first state legislator of Haitian descent when she was elected in 2012.
In 2010, Rodneyse Bichotte was elected as a district leader, and, in 2014, she became an assembly member representing the 42nd District, which comprises East Flatbush, Flatbush, Ditmas Park, and Midwood in Brooklyn. The same year out in Suffolk County, Kimberly Jean-Pierre became a member of the New York Assembly from the 11th District.
Mathylde Frontus was elected in 2018 to represent the 46th Assembly District, which covers all of Coney Island and Sea Gate, as well as parts of Bath Beach, Bay Ridge, Brighton Beach, Dyker Heights, and Gravesend. And District Leader Josue Pierre has been leader of the 42nd Assembly District on the New York Democratic State Committee since September 2016.
New York’s rich tapestry of nationalities and ethnicities is not always immediately reflected in its elected officials. There’s been but one mayor of color (not to mention zero women in the city’s top office). It wasn’t until 2001 that an Asian was elected to the City Council. Adriano Espaillat became the first Dominican member of Congress only three years ago.
Multiple factors shape the makeup of the city’s political class, like the way districts are drawn and the power of incumbency. For Haitians, who in a relatively short stint of time have gone from invisibility to having a substantial foothold in the city’s elected realm, a set of complex factors was in play.
The Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965 created in Flatbush and East Flatbush a stronghold of West Indians that led to the election of two Caribbean-Americans: Una Clarke, who was born in Jamaica, in 1991 and Rev. Lloyd Henry (from Belize) in 1993. (Una Clarke’s daughter Yvette succeeded her in the Council before being elected to Congress in 2006; Eugene was once Yvette’s karate instructor).
Yet it took Haitians another 16 years to break into municipal politics.
According to the founding director of the Haitian Studies Institute at City University of New York, Dr. Eddy St. Paul, the slowness of Haitians’ political ascent stemmed from the characteristics of emigrants from Haiti in the 1960s and 1970s.
St. Paul explained that a lot of intellectuals who fled the François Duvalier regime and came to New York thought they were doing so temporarily.
Unfortunately, Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, spent a combined 29 years in power, and these intellectuals, who might otherwise have participated in American politics, never did. “The Haitian intellectuals who fled Duvalier’s repressive regime didn’t expect the regime would last so long,” he said. “They came to New York with the hope that Duvalier would be toppled very soon and they would be able to come back to the island. That is why they never really got involved in politics here in New York.”
The Duvalier dynasty, one of the most brutal authoritarian regimes in Latin America, lasted from 1957 until 1986, with grisly records of torture, assassinations, and exile of its opponents. After the fall of the regime on February 7, 1986, many intellectuals went back to the island to participate in the bourgeoning democracy—depriving New York’s diaspora of the leaders who might have instead participated here.
Ricot Dupuy, a Haitian journalist at Radio Soleil, explained that the language barrier is also a factor that encumbered Haitians and prevented them from coming forward to participate in politics and run for election.
He pointed out that new leaders, such as Bichotte and Pierre, were born in the United States or came here at an early age, which means they did not have any difficulty communicating eloquently in English, “It is not easy for a Haitian to fully integrate to society without speaking proper English,” he said. “Anyone who doesn’t speak English cannot fully integrate into the society, and if you don’t fully integrate into the society how can you convince people to vote for you?”
One advantage for Baker was that he came from an English-speaking country (Nevis, in the West Indies). He did not have to learn English. Haitian immigrants from the commonwealth always boast about speaking the Queen’s English.
In addition to the language barrier, many Haitians in New York had to apply for proper legal status because they were living in the United States without documents.
Oppression has an echo
Further complicating matters in the 1980s and 1990s was the rise of AIDS. In those years, risks for HIV transmission were informally categorized into the “4Hs”: homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Haitians were the only ethnic group labeled as high-risk. In 1990, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended a policy of banning blood donations from Haitians. Many were ashamed to identify themselves as of Haitian origin. On April 20, 1990, over 100,000 Haitians poured across the Brooklyn Bridge and flooded downtown Manhattan to protest this recommendation by the FDA.
St. Paul also pointed out that the dire conditions in Haiti always hampered the economic ascension of the local Haitian community because, when the economic situation on the island is poor, families in New York send more money to their relatives in Haiti. That left fewer resources for funding candidates.
And the Duvalier dictatorship impacted Haitians’ political ascent in another way. After fleeing the dictatorship, the first generation of Haitian immigrants was not accustomed to participating in politics. And even in New York, politics reminded some immigrants of the torture endured by their friends and relatives, and sometimes themselves.
These memories may have shaped Louis’ mother’s reaction to her daughter’s decision to go into politics. “My mother was very afraid, even when it was in Brooklyn,” Louis told City Limits in an interview. “She was very concerned. She knows how politics can be very dirty and that folks are not fair. Her hope for me was that, whatever the reason I am doing this, that I accomplish what I was seeking to get out of it.”
A Brooklyn native. Louis graduated from Midwood High School, and went to Long Island University in Brooklyn, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English. She also has a master’s in public administration from New York University.
She started her career at Hot 97 and has worked at Canarsie Courier, a weekly newspaper in Brooklyn; Radio Soleil, a Haitian radio station; Focus TV; Brooklyn Media Art; and as a freelancer for a variety of local papers.
According to Louis, her switch from journalism to politics happened in 2011 when she was covering a rally of Brooklyn bus drivers and school matrons, who were at odds with their union because the union wanted to let their contract end. Louis said, “I saw people in tears, disgruntled, and sad. I told them, ‘Instead of getting mad, instead of being discouraged, organize.’ And I helped them organize a press conference. I helped them organize themselves to ask for collective bargaining, opportunities, and things of that sort; the outcome of that is that they did get the contract they needed, and they were able to keep their jobs.”
She served as the deputy chief of staff and budget director for Williams Williams created the vacancy in the 45th district when he won a February special election for public advocate, which itself filled the vacancy created when Letitia James was elected state attorney general in November.
A broader victory?
Today, with 61,550 souls, Haitians are the third-largest ethnic group in Brooklyn after the Jamaicans (70,508) and Chinese (129,219). But St. Paul stresses that if it had not been for other communities, such as the Jewish community, it would have been almost impossible for these new Haitian leaders to run a campaign and to be elected to office.
According to the BKLYNER, an online publication, Louis received decisive support from the Orthodox Jewish community in the district. In fact, the day prior to the election, Councilman Chaim Deutsch and Councilman Kalman Yeger wrote a joint letter to the community in the Yeshiva World News endorsing Louis. “After extensive discussions with our community’s leaders, we believe Farah Louis is the most qualified candidate. She has impressed us with her diligence and work ethic, and is committed to advocating for us,” it read.
She also won the support of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Kings County Democratic Party chairman Frank Seddio and Bichotte.
With 42.70 percent (3,649 votes) of the vote, Louis topped seven other candidates on the ballot—including Monique Chandler-Waterman with 29.98 percent (2,631 votes), Williams’s top choice.
On May 14 after her victory, Louis wrote on her Twitter account, “This campaign has shown me the beauty of, resiliency, and power of this district. Every person who contributed, volunteered, voted, and every person who offered a word of encouragement played an integral part in tonight’s outcome. It is my deepest honor to represent you on the New York City Council.”
She told City Limits that despite being one of Little Haiti’s political pioneers, she feels a duty to all groups in the district. “The most important thing is to unify the Haitian community with the Caribbean community, the Jewish community, and the South Asian community. We all need to be one,” she said.
Here are the candidates who have registered for the June 25 primary: